A Smoggy Day in Beijing
Pollution hangs in the air in January before the Chinese New Year. Reuters

The government's reporting on air quality is creating debate and suspicion in China, where people are increasingly doubting the pollution data released by the authorities.

Academics and experts in the country are now arguing over the accuracy and honesty of the government's methods for measuring small particulate matter, which is particularly harmful.

Until last week China had only measured particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometers, or relatively large carbon particles in the air.

In late February, the Chinese government publicized new plans to begin measurements for measuring particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers, four times smaller than what it measures now, as well as extending the monitoring of ozone levels. Particulate matter at 2.5 micrometers has the ability to pass through cell walls in the lungs.

In the past the Chinese government has stated that some cities have actually seen improvements in measurable sulfur dioxide and larger particulate concentrations. The municipal government of Beijing, located in northern China where smog is particularly bad, criticized U.S. and EU measurements that exposed worsening air quality in the capital.

In late 2011, the U.S. embassy in Beijing began reporting air quality measurements from its own rooftop after rejecting figures given by Chinese official sources. American consulates in other cities across China began to do the same soon after.

Air Filter Sales Booming

If consumer habits are any indication, Chinese citizens are not willing to take the word of their own government at face value.

Breathing filtered air is becoming more common, and sales of air filters in China are increasing.

The country's second-largest electronics retailer, Gome Electrical Appliance, claims that sales of air filters in 2011 increased 60% over 2010. High-end air purifiers for homes and offices can range in the 8,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan range, or roughly $1,270 to $1,590.

China's own leaders may be afraid of their country's air quality. Zhang Zhong, vice-president of the Broad Group (Yuanda), claims his company sells air purification units to the country's top leaders.

Long Yongtu, secretary general for the Bo'ao forum, an international conference hosted by China that draws business leaders and leaders from around the world, said he always takes Zhang's filters with him even when he travels.

Speaking to Western journalists in March, Zhong Nanshan, president of the China Medical Association, said that air pollution could become the greatest health risk in the country. 16 out of 20 of the world's most polluted cities are in China.

113 cities across China will be monitored for large and small particulate matter by 2013. The government plans to include all cities in a nationwide monitoring network by 2015.

The government is now focusing particular attention on improving air quality in the Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei province areas, where China's largest and most modern cities are located.